Arctic sea ice acts as a massive parasol for the planet, its white surface reflecting the sun’s rays back into space and keeping the air and ocean cool across the top of the globe. As the atmosphere warms, however, that ice has shrunk to historically low levels, according to satellite data. What if you could rev up the Arctic ice maker and build new layers of sea ice to counteract the warming effects of climate change?
A group of Bay Area scientists and engineers say they have just such a solution: A thin layer of tiny glass beads that, when spread across the ice, would boost its surface reflectivity, start a slight Arctic cooling trend, and overall create more ice.
The idea is to kick off a positive feedback loop, says Leslie Field, founder and CEO of Ice911 Research, a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California. Making the surface more reflective during the spring and summer months could prevent sea ice from absorbing as much heat and reduce its melting. If the gambit works as planned, this strengthened Arctic ice layer could in turn lead to cooler temperatures across the world. “The climate modeling we have done shows we can build up significant ice coverage in the Arctic,” says Field, a lecturer in environmental engineering at Stanford University. She also holds dozens of patents and has worked at HP Labs and Agilent Labs.
The Ice911 project is one of several geoengineering projects being considered by researchers who fear political leaders aren’t doing enough to force necessary cutbacks in emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Harvard scientists, for example, are proposing to add a small amount of calcium carbonate dust (2.2 pounds to start) to the atmosphere to see if it would increase reflectivity. Their proposed experiment to lift a device 12 miles above New Mexico by balloon and disperse the material is awaiting approval from an outside advisory board.
Field says geoengineering is not a replacement for cutting back on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Rather, she sees it as a way for nations to buy time to make bigger economic shifts. “This becomes a very large, single lever on climate change that you can work on before you decarbonize the economy,” says Field. “We shouldn’t give up and go home. That’s a message people need to hear.”
Field says Ice911 has run successful tests on ice-covered lakes in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Minnesota, and Alaska. Researchers at the firm published their results in a peer-reviewed paper last year in the journal Earth’s Future, which showed an increase in both ice thickness and reflectivity. The Ice911 team estimates it would cost $300 million to produce enough material to cover 9,600 square miles of the Arctic to have the desired cooling effect, more than double the current world production of the glass material.
Field believes the next step is to find a place in the Arctic Ocean that is losing a lot of ice during the summer months—and to secure funding for a test there. One candidate is Fram Strait, a narrow passageway between the eastern tip of Greenland and Svalbard, an archipelago north of Norway. Based on a climate model developed by Ice911, Field says treating less than one percent of the Arctic Sea could have a big impact on ice formation.
The hollow glass beads are composed of silicate, which is used in several industrial applications, and are produced in factories in Shandong, China. Because each one is 35 micrometers in diameter, they are too big to make it past the respiratory tract filters of mammals, according to Ice911. The organization tested the material on minnows and birds with no ill effects, according to data provided in its research paper, but still needs to evaluate how it would affect marine mammals.
Some experts say the Ice911 project might work in the short term, but that trying to predict how the complex set of pulleys and levers that make up the Earth’s climate will react is nearly impossible. Let’s say the glass bead experiment across the Fram Strait works and there is a localized cooling effect. That could result in changes in weather patterns elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, according to Alice DuVivier, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“It’s hard to know how the atmospheric circulation could change,” DuVivier says. “There’s a whole lot we still don’t know about our climate. Pulling on strings here and there can have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
Other scientists who have looked at the team’s proposal remain skeptical. Chad Thackeray, a climate scientist at UCLA, says that even with this intervention the Arctic will continue to warm, because planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions aren’t slowing down. Thackeray says the scale and cost of an operation to offset increasing Arctic temperatures would be massive.
DuVivier and Kristina Pistone, an expert on the planet’s reflectivity at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, also note that the Arctic Ocean is heating up as Greenland’s glaciers melt and warm freshwater flows on top of saltier, cooler seawater. That means that Arctic sea ice is not just melting from a warmer atmosphere, but a warmer ocean as well.
So far, nobody’s come up with a plan to cool the world’s oceans.
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